If you are looking for spiritual invigoration and a renewed sense in the strength of the human spirit, I may have a book for you.
Heading into the High Holidays, I said to the NFO, “I really need a few books to read-particularly one that I won’t feel guilty reading in synagogue when things get slow-or else I won’t make it.”
She responded in a big way and selected Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Lastby Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who was Chief Rabbi of Israel.
If that’s all he had done, that would have been a notable achievement, but the story of the man and his struggle is one of the most remarkable I have ever read.
Israel Lau was born in pre-WWII Poland. His father was the rabbi of their town, the 29th generation of rabbis in their family.
The Nazis invade, do an Aktion (a rounding up of all the Jews) and all but Israel and his brother, Naphtali, end us surviving the war.
But surviving doesn’t even do that justice. It’s incredible moment upon incredible moment…and all of this done at the ages of 7 and 8 with indomitable will to survive and the never-ending dedication of his older brother.
Circumstances, luck, miracles, divine intervention…call it what you will, Lau is the youngest survivor of Buchenwald, makes his way to pre-state Palestine, and eventually becomes Chief Rabbi, where he is in a position to affect not just Israeli politics, but world leaders like Pope John Paul II.
Jewish or not, you’ll have a difficult time putting this book down and when you do, you’ll reflect on what makes people persevere in the face of atrocity and inhumanity and our obligation to ensure that such events never happen again to anyone, anywhere.
There are a number of powerful stories in the book and a surprise appearance by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but the quote that stuck out for me came when he talked about the trail of Adolph Eichmann and Lau confronts another survivor who had testified.
“You coined the phrase, ‘Auschwitz as another planet’-but it is not accurate.
If Auschwitz were indeed another planet, it would be easier to accept the Holocaust. But in truth, the disaster of Auschwitz is that it happened on the very same planet where we had lived before, where we live now, and where we will continue to live.
Those who carried out the cruel murders of the innocent were ordinary people, who returned home from their murderous acts to water the flowers in their manicured gardens. They tended the flowers lovingly and carefully so they would blossom, just after they had torn infants to pieces and shattered the skulls of men and women. Just after shoving thousands of people into the gas chambers to their deaths, they came home to play with dolls together with their little girls, and listen to classical music, eyes closed, engrossed n the uplifting spirituality of Bach and Beethoven.
They knew exactly what was going on in the camps, but were able to continue enjoying life as if unaffected.
Is that another planet? Absolutely not.
Those were people just like you and me, and that’s the whole problem.
When you transfer all those horrors to another planet, you minimize the issue. You are saying that something like the Holocaust can never happen to us again. In my humble opinion, you are wrong.”